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Indigenous Youth Are Using AI to Save Their Languages

Image of Michael Running Wolf
Michael Running Wolf

In an era where our lives are increasingly digital, a profound story of cultural resilience is unfolding at Black Hills State University, South Dakota. Here, Indigenous students are diving into the realms of artificial intelligence (AI) and coding, not just for the sake of tech education but as guardians of their ancestral languages. At the heart of this revolutionary movement is the Lakota AI Code Camp, a vibrant hub of innovation battling against the fading echoes of native tongues.

Picture this: It's summer 2021, and Niesha Marshall, a teenager with curiosity in her eyes, steps into a world that's about to flip her understanding of AI on its head. With the pandemic having kept her from the classroom buzz for over a year, Niesha's idea of coding was more or less a Hollywood cliché. Fast forward through her time at the camp, and you find a young visionary ignited with a new passion: to harness technology in safeguarding Indigenous heritage.

This isn't just any summer camp. It's a deep dive, led by four Indigenous AI mavens, into Python, data science, machine learning, and app development, nestled some 220 miles from the Rosebud Reservation. But the camp's mission transcends teaching tech skills; it's about nurturing a generation of Indigenous technologists poised to digitally preserve and champion their culture.

The urgency of their mission is stark. With the United Nations ringing alarm bells that half of the world's languages might vanish by the century's end—Indigenous languages being particularly vulnerable—the camp stands as a beacon of hope. In a country scarred by centuries of assimilation policies and cultural erosion, this initiative offers a technological lifeline to record, teach, and celebrate native languages and customs.

However, the path hasn't been without its hurdles. Mason Grimshaw and Michael Running Wolf, the visionaries behind the camp, faced the daunting reality of an acute shortage of Indigenous AI and machine learning experts. With Native Americans barely making a dent in the computer science landscape and earning a minuscule fraction of doctoral degrees in computing, the duo saw the camp as a crucial step in bridging this gap.

Their success stories, like Niesha's, are a testament to the power of representation and the pivotal role it plays in inspiring Indigenous youth to explore STEM fields. Despite challenges like spotty internet access in rural settings and the need for high-performance computers to run sophisticated machine learning software, the camp's participants soared beyond expectations, devouring a week's worth of content in just three days.

Among the camp's standout achievements is the development of an app to recognize plants sacred to the Lakota, blending traditional knowledge with cutting-edge technology. This project, among others, highlights the camp's broader aim: to weave coding skills into the fabric of the community and redefine Indigenous interaction with technology.

The Lakota AI Code Camp's story is a vivid illustration of how education and technology can serve as powerful tools for cultural preservation. By creating a space where Indigenous youth can explore AI and coding through the lens of their cultural heritage, the camp equips them with the skills needed to be active participants in preserving their languages and traditions.

Photo of Michael Running Wolf
Niesha Marshall and Michael Running Wolf; credit: Caroline & Michael Running Wolf

As this initiative gains momentum, it lights the way for other Indigenous communities grappling with similar challenges. With plans to expand the camps to California and potentially upstate New York for Seneca youth, the ripple effect of this program promises to reach far and wide, offering a new blueprint for cultural preservation in the digital age.

For Indigenous students like Niesha, the camp is much more than a summer getaway—it's a gateway to a future where technology and tradition harmoniously intertwine to celebrate and protect Indigenous heritage.

This narrative serves as a potent reminder of the incredible potential that lies at the intersection of technology and cultural preservation. As Indigenous communities worldwide strive to safeguard their languages and traditions, initiatives like the Lakota AI Code Camp emerge as beacons of hope, demonstrating how AI can be wielded not just as a tool for innovation but as a means of nurturing the rich tapestry of human culture for future generations.


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